The East Terrace
Johnson ponders slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
February 26, 2009
Johnson is determined to drag England back to the top of the rugby world © Getty Images
England manager Martin Johnson has shocked the rugby world by holding an extraordinary and emotionally charged press conference at Twickenham.
During the unexpected media event (journalists had less than five hours notice from the RFU media office), Johnson waxed lyrical on his desire to take England back to the top of the rugby world and revealed his personal thoughts and feelings on some of his team's recent performances.
The former England skipper, surrounded by senior management and several top players, spoke eloquently and sensitively as he revealed his dream to see England re-establish themselves at the very pinnacle of the world game - a position they have not occupied since 2003 when Johnson himself lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in Australia.
"We have suffered through the winter of our discontent," said a fired up Johnson, clearly holding back tears as he spoke. "I now see hope and promise waiting on the horizon. I will go root away the noisome weeds which without profit suck the soil's fertility from wholesome flowers."
On several occasions during the news conference Johnson was so overcome by the passion of his vision he frequently slipped into classical Latin without even realising.
"I promise to take England onwards and upwards. I've told my squad that even if the World Cup was hanging from the clouds we could pull it down with our fingernails. After all, audentes fortuna iuvat. Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt."
As well as talking of his wish to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in 2011, the England coach happily allowed the attending media to address him with any questions they may have on Team England. Several journalists pushed Johnson for his take on the unfortunate tendency England have formed in recent times for collecting yellow cards due to moments of extreme indiscipline.
Johnson confronted the issue head on and stressed that he believed England had turned a corner in these matters. "To be angry about trifles is mean and childish; to rage and be furious is brutish; and to maintain perpetual wrath is akin to the practice and temper of devils; but to prevent and suppress rising resentment is wise and glorious, is manly and divine. I can assure you, our days of aimless wrath are behind us. We strive onwards with a more pure glory in our hearts."
Johnson also spoke candidly about the disastrous 42-6 defeat to world champions South Africa in the 2008 Autumn series. "The suffering in times such as those, it is intangible; no one can grasp it or fight against it; it dwells in time -- is the same thing as time; if it comes in fits and starts, that is only so as to leave the sufferer more defenseless during the moments that follow, those long moments when one relives the last bout of torture and waits for the next."
James Haskell, England's promising young flanker, was seated to the right of Johnson during the conference and spoke enthusiastically of Johnson's leadership skills and his ability to hold the English squad together during that November low point:
"Martin is a man who has done all there is to do in rugby. He's won World Cups, grand slams, won a test series with the Lions, European Cups, you name it and he has won it. He has also suffered bad defeats. But he has the character to overcome those moments and come back to win, to learn the lessons of defeat. So when he speaks, you listen. What was it he said after the heavy defeat to South Africa in November?
"Oh yes, I remember now, he said, 'Oh ye, all ye, who suffer here below, schooled in the baffling mystery of pain, who on life's anvil bear the fateful strain, wrong as forged iron, hammered blow on blow. Take counsel with your grief, in that you know, that he who suffers suffers not in vain, nay, that it shall be for the whole world's gain, and wisdom prove the priceless price of woe.' I think me and the lads took a lot of comfort in that. Most coaches would have just given us a tongue lashing."
When asked about the chances that the recent performances by England in the Six Nations were only the start of another false dawn, Johnson replied, "Facilis descensus Averni, noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis, sed revocare gradium superasque evadere ad auras. Hoc opus, hic labor est. Sorry, did I slip into Latin again? Sorry about that. What I meant was that it is easy to go down into Hell; night and day the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one's steps to the upper air - there's the rub, the task.
"Living without the world cup has been tough," added the clearly emotional head coach. "We intend to claim it back."
Johnson then turned to face a large image of the Webb Ellis trophy on the projector screen behind him. After staring at the picture for a few moments he then seemed to address it personally, "Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!"
On completion of these words an RFU spokesperson hastily called the press conference to an end as a clearly anguished Johnson began wailing uncontrollably, gnashing his teeth and started pounding his hands upon his chest.
James Stafford is editor of The East Terrace (theeastterrace.com) - an offside view of life in the rugby world